Carbon markets have been limited in utilizing carbon credits in natural working lands, in large part because the state of science and technology made carbon projects on such lands cost prohibitive. But research and markets are both pointing to natural working lands solutions, such as regenerative agriculture and forestry, as potential powerhouse climate change solutions that could deliver significant emissions reductions while generating more benefits for the agriculture sector, food supply, soil health and forest ecosystems. And now cutting edge developments in technology, such as remote sensing and machine learning, have begun to change the narrative.
The Climate Action Reserve hosted a panel discussion on the potential for climate solutions on natural working lands and ways technological innovations are making that potential become reality featuring pioneering leaders in the field of ag carbon: Robert Parkhurst, Sierra View Consulting; Chris Adamo, Vice President Federal and Industry Affairs, Danone North America; Adam Chambers, Scientist, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service; Dan Harburg, Vice President, Head of Carbon Quantification, Indigo Ag; and Philip Taylor, Executive Director & Co-Founder, Mad Agriculture. Here are key takeaways from the discussion:
The agriculture community is making big climate commitments and embarking on new collaborative climate initiatives
“Danone is looking at a global commitment of carbon neutrality by 2050. We also have a science-based target of 30% absolute reduction by 2030 as well. And so we have to think about our supply chain, and the agriculture and farmers that provide the commodities to those supply chains. It’s our biggest source of emissions, but also our biggest source of opportunity and solutions to find the emission reductions that we need to get,” said Chris Adamo, Danone North America. “In 2018, we launched a soil health initiative and started to voluntarily enroll farmers within our U.S. supply chain. We’re now entering year three of that initiative and we are over 50,000 acres and just under 40 producers, including over 2 dozen dairies, and cropland and some producers that are not dairies. We’re going through a benchmarking process with those producers, looking at a field by field site-specific, data-centric evaluation of operations. That’s the centerpiece of how we’re working with our U.S. supply chain to get to greenhouse gas emission reductions that we can quantify and account for. Another key part of our overall climate strategy is Horizon Organic, which is one of our key brands. It has over 600 farms in the U.S. in its supply chain and back in March we announced a carbon positive initiative with a commitment to be carbon neutral and above or beyond by 2025. So that’s pretty ambitious.”
“We work partnering directly with farmers to try to help improve farm sustainability, improve grower profitability as well as consumer health. We launched our Indigo Carbon program about a year ago with the goal of trying to bring growers into a carbon marketplace where they would be able to shift their management practices, quantify the amount of carbon that they’re reducing, and then be able to sell offsets or tie that carbon footprint change directly to the grain that they’re transacting in our marketplace. Over the past year, we’ve had about 18 million acres worth of growers express interest in joining the program. We have contracts right now with about 7.5 million acres of those growers,” said Dan Harburg, Indigo Ag.
New resources, tools, technologies, and systems approach help make climate smart agriculture possible and profitable
“There is potential for growers to earn additional revenue from climate positive or emissions reduced products. Indigo operates a series of online marketplaces that help growers transact their grain and find buyers who will pay for unique attributes inherent in the grains and fibers that these growers are producing. Our digital marketplace tools play really well together with better quantification offerings to growers. We help growers think about ways to reduce their emissions footprint and then ways to transact those grains,” said Dan Harburg, IndigoAg.
“Ten, fifteen years ago we were talking about, well, if everybody just did no till, then it became let’s look at the four R’s, and then it became let’s look at cover crops, how do we get double digit participation across this country on cover crops. And those are also very relevant management practices. But now we’re thinking about systems approaches. We’re thinking about how do you couple those management changes so that you can get not just the biggest environmental impact for things like greenhouse gas or water but find those economic efficiencies as well. Can you lower your input? Can you build a more resilient cropland? We’re a lot more sophisticated as a community now than we were 10 years ago. There’s been decades of science and learnings on these things. None of the pieces are new necessarily – a few things here and there maybe like a reactor saturated buffer – but when you put all this together and think about it, a system coupled with a layer of data that we actually understand, that opens up a whole new set of opportunities about how to work with a farm in a very efficient and productive way,” said Chris Adamo.
The field of data science and technology is growing, but there are challenges and more work to be done
“We’ve seen the opportunities for things like remote sensing technologies to be able to minimize the burden of what questions we have to ask of a grower or to simplify the monitoring and verification process, for example to check if a cover crop was indeed planted or to be able to check when a crop is harvested. We’re also starting to see some really interesting technologies that could reduce the complexity of collecting soil samples and processing soil data, which ultimately will be a really key part of these markets. That’s an area that I hope continues to get more attention from the scientific and entrepreneurial community because we’re still at a point where we’re using 50 – 70 year old techniques for analyzing soil samples. So I think those are some of the areas where technology has started to come into play but we certainly have more work to do,” said Dan Harburg.
“There are large research gaps that still exist that are not well understood that at the moment have been preventing progress in a lot of agricultural climate markets. We have contributed to that scientific knowledge base by helping to develop some of our own experimental resources internally to look at how is carbon interacting in deeper soil layers, what practices are tied to what kinds of emissions reductions and soil health changes, how do we think about permanence within agricultural soils. We’ve also looked to partner with a number of scientific organizations around the world to build off the research that they’re already doing, sharing the data that we’re gathering from our farms, and hopefully engaging in a really active scientific search right now for better answers that we think will unlock these markets going forward,” said Dan Harburg.
“We’re working really closely with CSU and Yale to create a cost-effective measuring and monitoring platform with known accuracy. We’ve been working on that for the last year on our Nori pilot farms. We have a little over 10,000 acres in that pilot launch,” said Philip Taylor, Mad Agriculture.
“These are dynamic land systems and how a crop land operates in California versus Kansas versus Michigan are all a little different. We have different soil types, different gradients, different climates. How a cover crop operates or doesn’t operate is all going to depend right on the locality that you’re working on. So these are complex dynamic systems – durability, permanence all very challenging issues,” said Chris Adamo.
“We’re also dealing with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of individual businesses across the United States. We’re asking millions of individual businesses to think about their operating system and how to fundamentally change them in some cases. For Danone, we have over 700 dairy farms that we procure milk from – this is a challenge and an opportunity for us. The company made a fundamental change in its procurement strategy over the last 10 years to know its farmer, to develop those direct relationships because we want the certainty. But without that relationship, it’s a very difficult if not impossible thing to do. You can’t just put out a regulatory marker and say all you millions of farmers across this country meet that regulatory standard. It just will not work like that. We’ve all got to think about the individual specificity of those farms and what their needs are and what their opportunities are,” said Chris Adamo.
“There are a ton of outstanding scientific questions that need to be answered through experimental work–migration of carbon in soil layers and certainly permanence. And there are also new emerging technologies that could accelerate the rates of sequestration or of a reduction in inputs through microbial technology, through other soil amendments, through biochar. And we still have a lot of work to do to understand which of those work and what are the conditions under which they work,” said Dan Harburg.
Tips for getting new farmers on board: community of practice, access to capital, and access to markets
“We have three levers of change that we surround the farm ecosystem with to get moving. The first is the community of practice that the farmer is participating in. Where’s the wisdom coming from? What are the grassroot organizations that provide on the ground support. Farmers listen to farmers foremost and it’s critical that trust network is in place. The second lever of change is access to capital. We designed farm plans to liberate Farm Bill dollars with Equip and CSP and everything else that the Farm Bill’s positioned to help farmers with,” said Phlip Taylor. “The last lever of change that we work with is access to markets both for crops and for ecosystem services. We work really hard so the farmers that we work with don’t sell at the grain elevator anymore where they’re exposed to the bottom line brutality of commodity markets. We work on diversifying the crops, moving into specialties, creating direct relationships with brands and buyers that want that kind of virtuous supply chain from soil to shelf where you can drive a win-win value prop for both the farmer and the brand.”
NRCS resources and carbon / ecosystem markets (which can develop in concert with growing scientific data) can be an economic and environmental solution for growers
“We can move atmospheric carbon into soils but how do we quantify it? What we deliver from the USDA is the science. We want to deliver the best science to everybody. There’s nobody else that’s making an effort to build a 600-page book about how to quantify entity scale greenhouse gas emissions for everybody to use. We’re trying to help the farmers, help the land, and get the economics right for the growers. And so we want to see carbon markets succeed. We also want to see a lot of the insetting mechanisms succeed,” said Adam Chambers, USDA. “We’ve invested in trying to give every farmer in the United States the opportunity to look at and analyze their greenhouse gas emissions. We recognize that’s not often in their wheelhouse, but we avail the tools to them. We’ve got quantification tools. We’ve got financial programs. We’ve got technical assistance. And really at the end of the day we want the farmers to be empowered.”
“It’s not clear if the conservation practices that create drawdown are profitable all the time. And so when you show up on a farm and talk about doing a cover crop to create drawdown, the farmer is like ‘I grow food, not carbon.’ Integrating a cover crop for the sake of climate change isn’t the first thing that a farmer is thinking about. If we’re putting the onus on farmers to solve climate change, we have to wrap it up deeply into their economics. We often talk about the profitability of adopting regenerative practices, whether it’s compost or cover cropping or adding a longer perennial rotation or moving to no till, all of these things have to pencil out on the balance sheet first and then the conversation on carbon can happen in a more robust way,” said Philip. “We generally see less than a third of a ton of carbon per acre per year in our best systems. And that’s when we’re really giving it a go. It reiterates the need for all of us to be doing exactly what we’re doing as a community and and staying in the conversation together.”
“We all want to move in the same direction–some of us call it regenerative, some of us call it drawdown, some of us want to work only in organic, some of us want to work in conventional crops. We can all do this together. We’re all working in the same direction. In this difficult time for our world and our country, I know of a farmer who was so happy to get a carbon market payment check—he grows food and he grows carbon and he got paid during this timeframe and the carbon payment has made a big difference in his life. So we need to reward those working lands – the agricultural growers – for the ecosystem services they provide to humanity,” said Adam Chambers.
“That is a common theme in discussions–that we need to get the markets in place. We can’t wait 5, 10, 20 years to continue with the science. We’ve got to continue to move forward,” said Robert Parkhurst, Sierra View Consulting.
“I think it’s going to be really important that we answer these questions and share knowledge with growers as we go. That can’t really stop us from getting the markets in place and trying to take first steps of action. You’re seeing this from the trailblazers like Danone and others who are stepping out and saying let’s develop insetting frameworks. Obviously, we don’t have everything answered today, but we have enough to get started and you’re seeing that from the Climate Action Reserve and others who are saying here are proposed methodologies, there are scientific questions that we have but, you know, everything kind of has to happen in concert,” said Dan. “The hope is that we develop both the technologies and approaches that allow for scalable practices and couplings of practices that lead to more emissions reduction and sequestration and we have really clear scientifically valid ways of quantifying those changes quickly so that we can get money into the hands of the farmers who are making the biggest impact as quickly as possible.”Tags: NACW, Natural & Working Lands, including Forests, offsets